The Edgerton brothers’ short film, Spider, gives you a good preview of what you’re in for with their starless, down-under noir, The Square. An understated setup results in a pair of shockingly violent punch lines, and it all bounces you from the tragic to comic in eight short minutes. The feature that follows only magnifies the filmmakers’ dark-hearted sense of irony. Greed begets a whole lot of unexpected trouble in their no-frills suspense film, which treads familiar genre territory but really knows how to put the screws to its audience.
In a homey Australian suburb, Ray (David Roberts) runs a struggling construction business while catting around with his across-the-pond neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom). When Carla stumbles across her criminal hubby’s (Anthony Hayes) stash of cash, she goads Ray into figuring out how they can take the money and run. Enter an arsonist named Billy (Joel Edgerton), who’s hired to burn down the house to cover up the couple’s robbery. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Sucked into a black hole of bad luck and bad decisions is a suspicious friend who’s got the hots for Carla, a contractor Ray is accepting kickbacks from, and Billy’s doormat of a girlfriend (along with other hapless victims).
The plot is tried-and-true noir, in which illicit lovers concoct a simple plan then watch it explode into a clusterfuck of unexpected violence and death. Chronicling a chain reaction of guilt and desperate choices, The Square delivers both a gallows wit and biblical sense of justice, punishing the lovers at every turn, which actually works against the piece. Their impending failure is so relentless and assured that the audience doesn’t have any expectation of reprieve, only deepening misery. All of which would be all right if we cared more about the characters. Unfortunately, we’re not given a whole lot to go on. Ray and Carla have a realistic, everyman quality to them but their adultery never finds the fevered lust or forbidden romance of a James M. Cain story. Despite the clever conceit of Ray’s career in construction but dogged pursuit of destruction, we’re never invested in his goals, only his desperation. Screenwriters Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner also neglect to temper their toughness with humor, which debunks other critics’ misguided comparisons to the Coen brothers’ cheeky debut, Blood Simple. The Square actually finds more likeness with noir stoics like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan.
Despite its missteps, director Edgerton, a former stuntman (the Matrix films), wields his obviously low budget to good effect, layering in convincing yet offbeat details and finely calibrating both the suspense and dread. Anticipation builds, the coincidences and twists build, and we find ourselves caught in The Square’s spiral of doom and feel-bad thriller. Heck, even one of the adulterer’s dogs meet a wickedly cruel fate.